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Experimental religion and experimental natural philosophy in early modern England

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One of the curious features of the theological literature of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century is the frequency with the term ‘experimental’ is used in relation to a variety of religious beliefs and practices – experimental knowledge of God, experimental prayer, experimental reading of scripture, experimental witnesses, experimental divines, and so on. If we pay close attention to the contexts in which these expressions appear, we see the beginnings of a technical vocabulary in which ‘experimental’ becomes more than simply a synonym for ‘experiential’ and in which the virtues of experimental knowledge are variously contrasted with mere speculative knowledge, with book learning, with second-hand reports of particular religious experiences, and with the doctrinal pronouncements of religious authorities. In the early modern English vocabulary of experimental religion, I suggest, there developed sets of oppositions that were subsequently taken up by promoters of experimental natural philosophy.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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